City Life in Tang

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City Life in Tang



The Capital. The emperors of the Sui dynasty (589-618) built Chang’an as a political statement, and those of the Tang dynasty (618-907) rebuilt and enlarged it for the same reason. By the early Tang period Chang’an was large, with outer walls stretching about six miles along the east-west axis and five and a half miles along the north-south axis. These walls, five yards high, were covered with bricks and formed a perfect rectangle around the city. The emperor’s palace, surrounded by a square wall, was located at the center of the city, with the market to the north and both the temple to the imperial ancestors and shrine of the earth to the south. The emperor and imperial family lived in the palace, which was not open to the public.

Regulated City. Chang’an was a planned and highly regulated city. Internal walls divided the city into more than one hundred smaller quarters, mainly for safety reasons. Each quarter had gates that operated according to curfew. Gates were opened in the morning and closed and locked at night. Soldiers on horseback patrolled the streets and people had to remain indoors. City government sustained a complex system of drum towers that proclaimed the time. Local officials, in order to collect taxes and recruit soldiers, forced the residents to register in each quarter.

Government Offices. South of the palace were offices of the imperial government, including buildings that held the meetings of six boards: revenue, civil appointment, rites, works, punishments, and war. The emperor met with the chiefs of these six boards to discuss significant state affairs. Other departments were responsible for official correspondence and documents.

Foreigners. The center of the foreign quarter was the Western Market, where a large non-Chinese population, about one-third of the city total, lived. China had about one million foreign residents, half of whom lived inside Chang’an. These foreigners built their own institutions dedicated to the religions practiced in their homelands. Persian-speaking businessmen worshiped at temples devoted to faiths they brought with them from Iran. They sacrificed live animals at Zoroastrian fire altars and sang hymns about the power of light triumphing over that of darkness at Manichaean temples. Travelers from Syria practiced Nestorianism, their form of Christianity, believing that Christ had two different characteristics: the human from his mother, Mary, and the divine from his father, the Lord.

Merchants. Since Chang’an was located at the end of the Silk Road, many merchants in the city were involved in this lucrative trade, bringing exotic goods all the way from Persia and India eastward and from Japan westward. These merchants were richer than those who worked with their hands. Many people envied their wealth, even though it created prosperity in Chang’an. Sumptuary laws, however, limited the size and types of decoration of houses, though merchants had ways to circumvent these laws. Government officials not only policed their lifestyles but also forced merchants to operate their businesses in only two markets under strict supervision. In addition, officials were especially suspicious of all merchants involved in long-distance trade. Regarding them as potentials spies, officials maintained strict surveillance over traders as they traveled from one city to the next. Travel documents were inspected at every checkpoint, and the ownership of all animals and slaves in the caravans was scrutinized.

Markets. The two markets in Chang’an were large, each covering about one kilometer square, and were located at the confluence of two transportation systems—the imperial roads and canals. The markets opened only at noon and closed at dusk. The Western Market specialized in foreign goods, while the Eastern Market focused on locally produced items such as salt, tea, silks, precious metals or jewels, slaves, grain, timber, and horses.

Silk. Silk was an essential good during the Tang dynasty, although the secret of making it had already proliferated beyond the borders. In Tang times silk served different functions; it was a currency equivalent in value to silver bars and copper coins, and most peasants paid some of their taxes with bolts of silk. The material, how-ever, continued to be used for fashioning clothes, often ornamented with elaborate foreign drawings, worn by wealthy people.

Market Supervisor. The imperial government tightly controlled commerce and trade in Chang’an. Two market directors enforced government rules. These supervisors could penalize traders for any offense against public order, and they were responsible for checking weights and measures and the quality of goods on sale. Since there was a chronic shortage of bronze coins (made out of copper, lead, and tin), bolts of silk served as the main currency, some-times supplemented by silver coins brought from Iran. Thus, market officials also regulated the quality of money in circulation. Their main task was to prevent unfair trading practices such as cornering the market on commodities and deceiving buyers. Every ten days they issued new prices for three grades of each basic good. Sellers of livestock, slaves, or land had to apply to their offices for a certificate of sale. Therefore, traders endured a high level of government control.

City Inhabitants. The life of common people in the city was simple. They ate basic meals, often only twice each day. Most families shared one or two rooms. The poor were frequently forced to pawn their possessions, on which they made installment payments every two months. When families were pressed for funds, they generally pawned clothing or bolts of silk, but sometimes they offered carpets or copper mirrors.

Work. Many people were employed in such menial jobs as maintaining shops, working on gardens, cleaning streets, feeding horses, and peddling goods. When they fell ill, they received medicine from Buddhist clinics, although many commoners who lived outside of the capital did not have this service.

Prostitution. City officials regulated houses of prostitution, which were located in the eastern market. Prostitutes, who had been deserted by their husbands or parents or had been abducted, worked for women whom they called their fictive mothers. These madams taught the prostitutes to sing, dance, and play drinking games. Limited to this district, these prostitutes could leave only if their customers posted a bond. Men could pay additional money to gain the exclusive services of an individual woman.


Bo Juyi, a great poet in the later Tang period (618-907), paid close attention to the misery of the poor. Here is one of his poems.

An old charcoal seller

Cuts firewood, burns coal by the southern mountain.

His face, all covered with dust and ash, the color of smoke,

The hair at his temples is gray, his ten fingers black.

The money he makes selling coal, what is it for?

To put clothes on his back and food in his mouth.

The rags on his poor body are thin and threadbare;

Distressed at the low price of coal, he hopes for colder weather.

Night comes, an inch of snow has fallen on the city,

In the morning, he rides his cart along the icy ruts,

His ox weary, he hungry, and the sun already high.

In the mud by the south gate, outside the market, he stops to rest.

All of a sudden, two dashing riders appear;

An imperial envoy, garbed in yellow (his attendant in white),

Holding an official dispatch, he reads a proclamation.

Then turns the cart around, curses the ox, and leads it north.

One cartload of coal—a thousand or more catties!

No use appealing to the official spiriting the cart away:

Half a length of red lace, a slip of damask

Dropped on the ox—is payment in full!

Source: Po Chii-yi, “An Old Charcoal Seller,” in Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), pp. 206-207.

Relocation. Insufficient grain supplies created another problem for the common people in the city. In the seventh century repeated canal blockages compelled the emperor to move the capital from Chang’an to Luoyang, a city in the east, located on a better section of the canal system. This relocation burdened commoners in the city, especially working people, because they had to do the carting of materials over a longer distance.

Taxation. As the life of urban inhabitants was highly regulated, so too was it for people living in rural areas. The Tang court set up a common and uniform system of house-hold registration, land distribution, taxation, martial conscription, and labor service. Theoretically, a peasant in the northwest, where there was a shortage of good land, was entitled to the same allocation of property to support his family as a peasant in southern China, where there was much more land. Peasants were required to pay the same taxes and perform similar military and labor obligations— twenty days of service each year. Officials performed inspections to calculate all members of a household and to find out which young men had come of age and were qualified for military and labor obligations. They also classified the elderly and the crippled, who qualified for different degrees of tax immunity. On the basis of information contained in these registers, officials divided the population into nine grades that defined each man’s level of taxation and labor service. Many people, including the imperial family and all their relatives, were exempt from paying taxes. Monks and nuns, recorded on separate household registers, paid no taxes and performed no labor service.

Merchants who owned no land paid few taxes because commercial taxes were extremely light. Many people fabricated personal information, so government registers showed too few people and too little occupied land throughout the empire. A constant lack of funds resulting from these inefficiencies plagued the Tang dynasty.

Celebrations. The lunar New Year signaled the coming of spring and the time of grand celebration. On the fifteenth day of January the lantern festival was celebrated. On this day commoners did not have to go to work and had a chance to eat meat, the only time each year they were able to do so. For the rest of the year they ate wheat and millet gruel, supplemented by vegetables. They visited their relatives in the city or went out of town to worship at temples. In 715 the emperor built a 45-meter-high structure laden with fifty thousand lanterns for the pleasure of the inhabitants of Chang’an.


Hugh R. Clark, Community, Trade, and Networks: Southern Fujian Province from the Third to the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge 6c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Patricia Buckley Ebrey, The Aristocratic Families of Early Imperial China: A Case Study of the Po-ling Tsui Family (Cambridge &, New York: Cam-bridge University Press, 1978).

John Curtis Perry and Bardwell L. Smith, eds., Essays on T’ang Society: The Interplays of Social, Political and Economic Forces (Leiden: Brill, 1976).

Edward H. Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

Denis Crispin Twitchett, Financial Administration under T’ang Dynasty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963).

Arthur F. Wright and Twitchett, eds., Perspectives on the T’ang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

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City Life in Tang

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City Life in Tang